MLS PLAYOFFS

Toronto FC has tunnel vision ahead of big home tilt

By Kurt Larson, Toronto Sun

Toronto FC’s Nick Hagglund heads the ball during the opening leg of the MLS Eastern Conference final against the Impact at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The series shifts to BMO Field on Wednesday with a berth in the MLS Cup final on the line. (GETTY IMAGES)

Toronto FC’s Nick Hagglund heads the ball during the opening leg of the MLS Eastern Conference final against the Impact at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The series shifts to BMO Field on Wednesday with a berth in the MLS Cup final on the line. (GETTY IMAGES)

It’s hard not to look past the Eastern Conference final and envision something bigger: Hosting the biggest game since the biggest game in Toronto FC history.

That’s what everyone else was doing during Toronto FC’s penultimate training session ahead of Wednesday’s decisive return leg against the Montreal Impact.

Head coach Greg Vanney didn’t need reminding of the opportunity that awaits, though he seemed hesitant to talk about anything beyond the Impact at this stage.

It was like in baseball, when a pitcher’s teammates don’t talk about a looming no-hitter or perfect game. The Reds weren’t interested in talking about hosting Seattle in the MLS Cup.

The Western Conference champs took down the Colorado Rapids Sunday afternoon, meaning the Reds are poised to host the league’s cup final due to regular-season point accumulation.

“It’s actually quite irrelevant for the next two days,” Vanney said. “Nobody has said a word about it in the building.

“We know we have plenty of work ahead of us in dealing with this next match against Montreal. When that’s said and done we’ll determine if the (Western Conference final) meant anything to us.”

It’s going to mean something either way. The Reds aren’t just playing for derby bragging rights and a spot in the championship game anymore. They’re playing to stage the biggest club soccer match in this country’s history.

The consequences of losing Wednesday night’s tilt will be a lifetime of bad memories. Opportunities like this occur once in a career. Only three MLS clubs have lifted the MLS Cup in front of home supporters.

“The league is going to continue to grow and it’s going to get more and more difficult to get to this point,” Vanney said, alluding to the fact there’ll be 22 teams in MLS next season.

“Back to the original question, to have the opportunity to (host an MLS Cup) is going to become more and more difficult. As the league continues to add teams, less teams are going to have that opportunity.”

It took Toronto FC nine years just to make the postseason — a decade to win a playoff meeting. Half of Major League Soccer’s clubs have never won an MLS Cup.

Of those, seven haven’t appeared in one. Ten MLS cities haven’t hosted the league’s marquee event. In other words, there are no promises these squads will get another chance as good as this one.

“I came to this club to compete for championships,” said Drew Moor, who won an MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids six years ago. “We’re competing for a championship now.

“If you took me back to last December and said, ‘Hey, you have 90 minutes to win a game at home to host MLS Cup,’ I would have signed the paper right then.”

Had you handed Moor that same paper midway through last Tuesday’s match at the Big O, where Toronto FC trailed 3-0 after halftime, he would have jumped at the reprieve.

The Reds were belly-up in the water last week, floating lifeless with nibble fish picking away at their carcasses until Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley rescued the Reds from imminent defeat.

“They have the lead,” Vanney added. “From that perspective, they enter the game as the favourites. But what we have on our side is we’re at home. If we score one goal we can quickly turn things around.”

For now, though, MLS Cup is an unspoken reward — the carrot dangling in front of a group of players who are finding it hard to ignore what’s within reach.

“From me to you, and I’m sure from our team in their own heads, there’s that recognition that a good result for us will make a historical day for the city and a great opportunity,” Vanney said.

“It’s not something we spend too much of our time turning our attention to, but that’s not to say we’re not aware of it. We know the value and the possibilities that exist should we take care of business on Wednesday.”

 

SPACE IS LIMITED FOR GIOVINCO

Whether it was a shot or a compliment, Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco isn’t concerned about Montreal’s bunkering defence.

Guarding a 3-2 first leg lead, the Impact travel to BMO Field Wednesday night looking to hold serve and become the first Canadian team to advance to the MLS Cup. And that means the 37,000 in attendance might have to endure Montreal parking the bus.

“When you play with six defenders and three midfielders, obviously you must be a magician to find spaces,” said Giovinco, who struggled to find the game last week at the Olympic Stadium.

“But this is part of soccer. This is the name of the game. As a team, we’ll do our best to find ways to win. That’s the task. It doesn’t matter how or who will score.”

The Atomic Ant has four goals and three assists through four playoff games.

His head coach says don’t bet against him.

“I suspect that he’ll give everything he has on Wednesday night to make the outcome favourable for us and him and the city and everybody else,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said.

“He’s going to give everything he has. In terms of execution, I’d never bet against him. But, we wait and see where that goes. But i think he and everybody around him will give everything they can.”

Giovinco called the chance to host the MLS Cup on Dec. 10 “additional motivation for everybody to do their best.”